One day I was reading with a group of my second graders during a rotation reading period when three students approached me: “My iPad isn’t charged.” “Neither is mine.” “Mine is dead, too.” I realized that I had forgotten to charge the iPads the night before.
That same week, I accompanied my class down to the lunch hall, but I forgot to bring our empty snack bag. This was a no-no—we could not collect our apples, pretzels, or the class favorite, cheese cubes, if we didn’t return the bag, so I ran to the classroom to grab it. Upon rejoining my students in a sweat, I was asked, “Why don’t we make that a classroom job? I can remember to bring the snack bag down every day.” Eureka!
Where I Went Wrong
Traditionally, classroom job charts are created by teachers for students. The jobs are often predetermined and are randomly switched every week or so. Students feel little to no ownership of the job they are assigned because they haven’t been appointed due to any special talent or interest on their part. That was certainly how I had been managing my job chart.
The problem was, my job chart didn’t reflect my belief that autonomy helps prepare students for life in a democratic society. To foster autonomy, I could relinquish some control of the job chart—my students could identify needs in the classroom and take on roles of responsibility to address those needs.
Instead of a Job Chart, a Need Chart
Soon after my eureka moment, we held a classroom meeting. I had the students gather around the job chart that I had created, and I asked them to explain which jobs were needed and why. They felt that many of the jobs I had listed were not necessary—only a handful of them landed in the “keep” pile.
So we started over, writing “Classroom Needs” at the top of a piece of chart paper. As a group we brainstormed a new list of jobs that were truly needed for our classroom. Students continued to add to the list even after the meeting ended. Over several days, the paper filled with roles: mailbox filler, math manipulative helper, puppet placer, parent night and party organizer, snack bag holder, iPad charger, technology helper, timer, field trip helper, class photographer, and more. The students decided we even needed to dedicate a role to wiping up under our leaky sink.
On Friday we held another class meeting and created a T chart to identify occasional needs and everyday needs. Occasional roles like party organizer and field trip helper would be selected on an as-needed basis, but for roles like technology helper and math manipulative helper—roles that were needed every day—one student or a small team would remain responsible. In small groups, we discussed the responsibilities that would go along with each position.
The following week during morning meeting, we held a “Classroom Need Fair,” and students discussed the qualifications and responsibilities of each classroom need. These conversations helped my second graders understand what they individually and collectively valued. They then used our iPads and photos they had taken to make posters to display the new responsibilities.
Now that the students were satisfied with the new chart and descriptions, I invited them to list the top three positions they most wanted to apply for, detailing why they wished to fill each particular need.
That night, I reviewed all of the applications, aiming to give each student their first or second choice. I had to give a few students their third choice, and truthfully, this did not go over very well with some of them. In these cases, I offered the students an opportunity to either establish a new need or join another need as someone’s partner.
I made official-looking position letters and put them in students’ mailboxes. Each letter mentioned the student’s role and their team members, if they had any.
Once our new system was established, students would occasionally say that they wanted to change responsibilities or that their positions were no longer necessary, as happened when our leaky sink was finally fixed. In these cases we would run a new round of applications during morning meeting.
This system wasn’t without bumps. Some important roles were not identified by students, and I would have to continually ask for volunteers to fill a need that I had identified: “Hmm, is this a need that belongs on our need chart?” As time went on, though, students grew in their awareness of recurring needs, which helped with ownership and the creation of new roles.
Once in a while, the iPads were still left unplugged and the snack bag was left behind—but the goal was not to stop students from forgetting or to mold them into classroom chore robots. The need chart helped my students better understand and appreciate the ways that they could support our classroom community. This approach to classroom jobs gave the students a sense of ownership and independence that they both craved and deserved.